Tech by VICE

In Growing Spat, Facebook Claims India Telecom Regulator Blocked Its Emails

The social network sent the regulator millions of generic emails supporting its Free Basics service.

by Adrianne Jeffries
Jan 19 2016, 8:23pm

Photo: Getty Images

Facebook and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or TRAI, are engaged in a snippy epistolary argument as the agency prepares to write new policy that would affect Free Basics, Facebook's discounted internet offering.

Now, in the manner of a passive-aggressive spat between roommates, Facebook has accused the agency—or at least, someone within the agency—of blocking its emails.

"Someone with access to the designated TRAI email account appears to have blocked receipt of all emails from Facebook," Facebook wrote in a letter to the regulatory agency on January 13.

"This appears to have been accomplished by unsubscribing from receiving all further emails from Facebook, effectively requesting that Facebook cease delivering emails to that address. This action prevented the Facebook system from sending further responsive emails to TRAI."

The emails in question were collected from Facebook users declaring their support of Free Basics, a "zero-rated" service that allows people in developing countries to connect to a limited number of websites for free. Facebook says it is pushing Free Basics in order to help underprivileged people get online for the first time; opponents say it's a play to recruit more Facebook users and give the company more control over the internet.

Facebook says that by opting out of its emails, the agency is ignoring feedback from 13.5 million users

In India, Facebook partnered with the mobile carrier Reliance Communications in order to offer customers access to a number of sites, including Facebook, BBC News, and ESPN, through their phones free of charge. But on December 9, TRAI issued a consultation paper on differential pricing—the practice of charging different rates for different content online—and solicited feedback from "industry leaders and stakeholders."

Then on December 23, the agency banned Free Basics pending an investigation into whether it violates principles of net neutrality, the idea that all content on the internet should be equally accessible. This will presumably be informed by the ruling on differential pricing, although that issue is broader than just Free Basics.

Facebook says that by opting out of its emails, the agency is ignoring feedback from 13.5 million users.

An excerpt of Facebook's letter to TRAI.

"It would be an unfair and unjustifiable result for the voices of these millions of Indians not to be heard before deciding on a final policy on differential pricing," the company wrote in its January 13 letter.

In its January 18 response, TRAI insists any blocking was a mistake and chastised Facebook for not pointing out the issue sooner. However, it's not clear that the agency truly appreciates the comments Facebook has been collecting.

While Facebook insists these 13.5 million user comments are valuable input, TRAI unambiguously disagrees, calling the comments "tangential" and charging that the company is violating the "spirit and letter" of its policy-making process.

In response to the call for public comment on differential pricing, Facebook prompted members of its massive user base to fill out a web form with a generic message in favor of Free Basics.

"I support digital equality for India," the statement reads in part. "Differential pricing programs—in particular, zero rating programs like Free Basics—are an essential tool for bringing more unconnected people online across India and should not be banned."

When TRAI complained that this message ignored the four technical questions the agency had specifically asked for feedback on, Facebook incorporated the questions along with generic answers.

For example, in response to question 1, "Should the TSPs be allowed to have differential pricing for data usage for accessing different websites, applications or platforms?" Facebook supplies this answer:

It is not clear that the Free Basics program should be considered as differential pricing, but even if it is, Free Basics should be allowed under any regulatory framework adopted by TRAI. Free Basics is an essential tool for bringing more people online and expanding connectivity across India.
Moreover, the structure of Free Basics is pro-consumer and pro-competition:
* Free Basics is non-exclusive. It is available to all operators on the same terms and conditions.
* Free Basics is an open and non-discriminatory platform. Any content owner can participate as long as it meets the same technical criteria, which are openly published.
* Free Basics is free to both users and content owners. No one is charged for accessing the content on Free Basics. No content owner is charged for participating in the platform.
* Free Basics is transparent. All of the technical standards are published and available online.
* Facebook does not pay carriers to exempt its content from usage limits.

Facebook says it is collecting legitimate evidence that public opinion in India is in favor of Free Basics, but TRAI says the comments are "tangential" to the issue and Facebook's campaign violates the of the public comment period.

"Your urging has the flavor of reducing this meaningful consultative exercise designed to produce informed decisions in a transparent manner into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll," the agency wrote in a letter to Facebook on January 18.

TRAI also complained that the standardized message that Facebook provided its users does not include the agency's paper or explain the consultation process, and furthermore suggests that Facebook is misrepresenting its users.

Excerpt of TRAI's response to Facebook.

"Equally of concern is your self-appointed spokesmanship on behalf of those who have sent responses to TRAI using your platform," the agency wrote. "It is noticed that you have not been authorized by your users to speak on behalf of them collectively."

Facebook's web form says "By clicking Send Email, you agree to let Facebook send your name and this email to the TRAI." TRAI found this disclosure lacking given Facebook's aggressive lobbying. "This does not in our view imply any consent on the part of the user to allow Facebook to speak on their behalf as you have done, urging TRAI to hear 'the voice of these millions of Indians,'" the agency wrote in its letter.

"Your urging has the flavor of reducing this meaningful consultative exercise designed to produce informed decisions in a transparent manner into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll."

Still, the agency says, it is committed to considering "any relevant response" to its consultation paper, even if submitted through Facebook.

Free Basics has become controversial in India, as internet freedom activists become more vocal and Facebook blankets the country with pro-Free Basics advertising. The deadline for public comment, which was extended twice, ended on January 14. On January 21, TRAI will host a public hearing. The agency is expected to issue a ruling on differential pricing by the end of the month.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.